The rookery

Smith’s collaborations set high standard

Traditional Music /

By Daniel Neely

Jesse Smith has been a part of a lot of great albums. There’s “Think Before You Think” with Danú (2000), his solo album “Jigs and Reels” (2002), the one with the Tap Room Trio (2003), and “Ewe With the Crooked Horn” with Colm Gannon (2010). Each one of these is a cracker and absolutely worth having, but we can add couple more to the list, “The Rookery” with uilleann piper Emmett Gill and “At My Grandmother's Knee” with fiddler Mick O’Grady and John Blake.

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Both are excellent albums and will have great appeal to fans of traditional music. Smith’s consistent quality shouldn’t be a surprise, as he is perhaps one of the most important and best playing young fiddlers on the scene today. He grew up in Baltimore, born into both a strong musical community (he learned fiddle from the great Brendan Mulvihill) and a strong musical household (his mother is piano colossus Donna Long and his father John is both a singer and guitar player). And not only did he have a who’s-who of Irish music passing through his house growing up, he cut his teeth at the fleadhs in the early 1990s, alongside the likes of Tina Lech, Marie Reilly and Matt Mancuso, formidable players all.

Being rooting in some of the most fertile musical soil Irish America has to offer, Smith moved to Ireland in 1998 and joined Danú soon after arriving. Although his tenure in the band was relatively brief, he was a member when they won their first BBC Radio 2 Folk Award in 2001. Then, over the next decade and change, he grew into the scene, earned a Master of Arts degree in 2008 from Dundalk Institute of Technology (his thesis was on Michael Coleman) and found a place for himself in “The Music” with some of the brightest players in Ireland. It’s a terrific story.

“The Rookery,” which builds on this story, is the new album of instrumental music Smith has made with Emmett Gill. Gill, who was born in London, came through the Pipers Club in Camden, recorded a solo CD “Mountain Groves” in 2007 and is one of two folks (the other being Gerry Clarke) behind Oldtime Records, an intriguing-looking label that reissues music from the 78rpm era. He is an outstanding player all together and his playing balances with Smith’s wonderfully. Throughout this album he’s playing a set of C-pitched uilleann pipes (a Koehler and Quinn set if you’re keeping track at home) and I imagine Smith has tuned his fiddle down to suit, which gives this album a rich, dark sound that compliments the duo’s fabulous tempos and swing. This album is consistently good from start to finish. The playing is tight and the duo presents on it a lovely selection of interesting tune settings. Their version of “Lillie’s in the Field,” for example, taken from the Francis O’Neill cylinders in the Dunne Family Collection at the Ward Irish Music Archives in Milwaukee, has some lovely, unusual touches that sets it apart from more common versions. All of the album’s other tunes are curated in a similarly tasteful and informed way. Both players are featured on their own – Smith on “Yellow Tinker / ...” and Gill on the “Kilfenane Jig / ...” and each plays brilliantly.

To learn more, visit “At My Grandmother's Knee,” the other recent album on which Smith features, sets a similarly high musical standard. There, Smith is playing beside Mick O'Grady and John Blake, two of Smith’s longtime co-conspirators.

Blake, a London native now based in Ireland, is widely considered one of Irish music’s finest accompanists. Over the years he and Smith have played and recorded extensively together, but the list of artists with whom Blake’s worked with is long and impressive.

His playing adds to this album immeasurably. O’Grady, however, is the real star of this show.

The Leitrim-born fiddler grew up in County Mayo, and he learned from many of the players there and in Sligo, where Fred Finn and Peter Horan had a particular influence.

However, he left Ireland when he was young to follow work, a move which took him first to England in the 1960s and then the US (Pittsburg and New York) in the 1980s. He now lives in Dublin, where he hosts (often with Smith) a weekly session at the Cobblestone.

O’Grady’s playing is top-shelf. He was a featured player on the seminal “Music at Matt Molloy’s” album, and until his 2009 solo song debut “The Long Distance Kid” it was the only way people outside Ireland might have known about his music.

This album changes that. Comprising mostly instrumental dance music, the album mostly features the trio together. Tracks like “Humors of Ballyconnell / ...” and “Jerry’s Beaver Hat / ...” have a rough-hewn drive that will remind many of great house sessions of bygone days. Other tracks, like O’Grady and Smith’s duet on “Willie Duffy’s Mazurka” and O’Grady’s feature on “Gillian’s Apples” are outstanding and showcase O’Grady’s playing more directly. O’Grady gets the spotlight on three songs, “Leaving Mayo,” “Castlebar” and “The Philadelphia Lawyer.” Each is thoughtfully delivered and conveyed with a wisdom appropriate to each song’s subject. For more about “The Rookery,” go to For information on how to buy “At My Grandmother's Knee,” contact